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Practical skills at A level – flavour of the month or a nasty taste?

Published: Nov 17, 2014 3 min read

Ed Walsh


Barely a week goes by now without another A level science specification being approved by Ofqual. Although the awarding organisations have given their courses a distinctive flavour, there are of course certain common characteristics. Irrespective of how much shopping around is done, this is the common headline.

Assessment of practical skills

The one that’s had the most coverage is, of course, the assessment of practical skills. There’s a bit of folklore in circulation that, as there will no longer be a practical examination in the A level exams, that practical skills count for nothing and aren’t being valued. I have to say, that no-one I’ve spoken to who has had any involvement with this development, has questioned the importance of scientific enquiry or the skills and processes that make it up. The issue is how to assess them in a way that doesn’t distort the focus of teaching, make students ‘jump through hoops’ or result in data with questionable validity.

Each specification lists stipulated practical investigations that students are expected to carry out. Most teachers will go further but all will do these specifications…. For the following reasons:

  • a good practical, well introduced and effectively supported, is a good way of developing the understanding of key concepts
  • students are going to be repeatedly questioned on their understanding and application of them. To the tune of 15% of the marks in the final exams
  • teachers will be assessing practical competencies. These lead to a separate endorsement but will also provide a good opportunity to provide developmental feedback in a formative way
  • someone is going to come visiting and will want to see evidence and talk to people.

Still in any doubt that practical work is important?

These are important messages and ones that people in your A level team need to know about. A great way of getting up to speed on this and other issues is to come along to one of the events that the Science Learning Network South West is running on the new A level specifications. The same course, Introducing the new A level specifications is also running in the North West. Each is supported by AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas (WJEC’s English operation) and OCR so you can compare the offers. See what’s the same, what varies and which ones are best for you.

Also worthwhile seeing is what else is changing? For example, the mathematical content. In developing the new courses, awarding organisations had to talk to universities and see what they thought about the existing A levels. They were pretty happy with the content but less complimentary about the mathematical skills that newly recruited undergraduates were starting out with – so a fire has been lit under this one. Final exams will now have at least 10% of the marks in biology going on questions with a level of mathematical challenge equivalent to a GCSE grade C, 20% in chemistry and 40% in physics.(Source: DFE paper DFE 00356 2014: GCE AS and A level subject content for biology, chemistry, physics and psychology)

There will be more Science Learning Network CPD activities coming along next year to support the implementation of these specifications, including exploring how assessments are changing. Things are cooking up – make sure they’re to your taste.

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